High Court: Son who was promised 90 acres of land successfully challenges mother’s will
A man who left school at the age of 15 to work on the family farm, and who was promised a 90 acre plot by both his father and mother before their deaths, has successfully challenged his mother’s will in which he was left just three acres after a family rift involving his in-laws.
Finding that the man was entitled to the 90-acre plot based on his claims of proprietary estoppel, testamentary contract, and moral duty to make proper provision, Mr Justice Denis McDonald preferred the plaintiff’s evidence over that of his siblings and concluded that it was clear the man had relied on the promises made to his detriment.
The plaintiff and the defendant are brothers in a family of six children. Their father died in 1996, and his extensive estate was left to their mother. In 2013, their mother died, leaving her “her china, delph and cutlery” to her three daughters, in addition to a bequest of €5,000 to each of them. The mother left substantial gifts of land to her sons, with the Lion’s share being left to the defendant in the present proceedings. At the time of the mother’s death in 2013, the bequests of land were valued at approximately €42,000 to the plaintiff, over €3 million to the defendant, and €750,000 to the other brother.
The plaintiff brought the proceedings in circumstances where he was promised a third of the land by both his father and his mother before their deaths, namely a 90-acre plot valued at over €1 million in June 2018.
In the High Court the plaintiff submitted that he was entitled to the identified plot of land, advancing the following claims:
- Promissory estoppel, proprietary estoppel and/or legitimate expectation;
- Alternatively, on the basis of a testamentary contract between him and his mother;
- In the alternative, the plaintiff sought a declaration pursuant to s.117 of the Succession Act 1965, that his mother failed in her moral duty to make proper provision for him in accordance with her means.
In his lengthy judgment, Mr Justice McDonald found that the plaintiff was entitled to the 90 acres under all three claims.
Bullied out of the family business
The plaintiff submitted that he had relied on the promise of the gifts of land to his detriment by leaving school at the age of 15 to work on the family farm without remuneration for over 20 years. The plaintiff submitted that he had been promised 90 acres of land, namely “from the village to C where the stone wall goes through the shed”, and that based on representations from his father, his mother, and his uncle, he had devoted his life to the family farm. In contrast, the plaintiff submitted that his brothers had not done as much work on the farm over the years, instead being paid to work for other farmers.
In 1997, the three brothers and their mother started a business together on the family farm, which developed into a “very successful” concrete business. The plaintiff submitted that he had been ‘bullied out of’ the family business in 2007 after a fight with the defendant, and that there had been animosity underlying between him and the rest of the family since his father-in-law had given evidence in an adverse possession claim against their mother in the early 2000s. The Court heard that the plaintiff’s in-laws were involve as adversaries against his mother in two disputes, and that this caused a rift in which his own family “got caught in the crossfire”. Mr Justice McDonald accepted that this rift was the underlying cause of the plaintiff being asked to leave the family business in 2007.
Rejecting claims that the plaintiff had left the business of his own volition, Mr Justice McDonald said that it was “very clear that the departure of the plaintiff from the family business was a forced departure”, in circumstances where he was a man in his 40s with a young family who had devoted his life to the family farm, had “played a key role in the establishment of the business”, and “resorted to operating a hackney business which did not generate very much by way of income”.
Contribution to family farm “significantly more extensive”
In the High Court, the plaintiff’s evidence was supported by largely unchallenged evidence given by his aunt and family friends who were familiar with the farm when the plaintiff’s father was alive. While the defendant and the other four siblings argued that the three brothers had shared the workload, and that the plaintiff had not assisted as much as his brothers, Mr Justice McDonald said that there was no evidence to substantiate this and that as a matter of fact “the plaintiff’s contribution in the period up to his father’s death was significantly more extensive than that of his brothers”.
As a whole, Mr Justice McDonald preferred the evidence of the plaintiff, stating that he had been a more forthright witness than the defendant, that he was willing to make concessions, and that he did not prevaricate his evidence. Further to the corroborating evidence given by his parent’s family and friends, the evidence given by the plaintiff in regards to the promise of land made to him was in line with his mother’s 1997 will, which he did not have the benefit of seeing until after discovery.
Mr Justice McDonald was satisfied that the plaintiff had been promised the 90 acres of land by his father, and that his promise had again been made by his mother after his father’s death. Mr Justice McDonald said that the plaintiff had no way of knowing that his mother would alter her will after he had been ousted from the family business in 2007.
Entitled to 90 acres considering all three claims
Considering the claim based on testamentary contract, Mr Justice McDonald concluded that there was an enforceable promise made by the mother to the plaintiff. Rejected arguments submitted by the defence that the claim should be defeated by reason of laches and acquiescence, Mr Justice McDonald said that there was nothing to suggest that the plaintiff “had any inkling that she would hit him with the double blow not only expelling him from the family business in 2007 but also rescinding in 2011 the promise previously made by her in 1997”.
For the specific performance of the testamentary contract, Mr Justice McDonald ordered that the defendant transfer to the plaintiff the 90 acre plot identified, in substitution for any gift made to him under the 2011 will.
Mr Justice McDonald was also satisfied that the plaintiff was entitled to the 90 acre plot under his claim of proprietary estoppel, in circumstances where it was clear that the detriment he suffered in reasonably relying on his mother’s promise was substantial.
Considering the claim pursuant to s.117 of the Succession Act 1965, Mr Justice McDonald said that the mother was “fully entitled to make a more generous gift to the defendant”, but that the disparity was extreme, and that a “just and prudent parent” would not permit such a disparity in all the circumstances of the plaintiff’s case.
Finding that “there was a manifest failure on [the mother’s] part to make proper provision for the plaintiff in accordance with her means”, Mr Justice McDonald said that the 90-acre plot would satisfy the range of values that a just and prudent parent would consider.
- by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News
© Irish Legal News Ltd 2019